Lawmakers and leaders of Minnesota’s medical cannabis industry were stunned by the Trump administration’s shift in policy regarding legalized marijuana, but said they’re unsure how much impact it will have in the state.
“We are evaluating potential implications,” said Michael Schommer, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health, which administers the state program. “What we do know is that Minnesota’s medical cannabis program has reduced the pain and suffering of thousands of Minnesotans dealing with serious health conditions,” Schommer said. “We are committed to doing all we can to ensure their continued well-being.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a five-year-old policy that gave states cover — as they legalized marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes — from federal laws that technically consider any marijuana use and distribution to be a crime. Sessions, a critic of marijuana legalization, encouraged federal prosecutors now to use normal discretion in deciding whether to prosecute such drug cases.
Congress has determined “that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime,” Sessions said in his Jan. 4 memo to U.S. Attorneys.
While the change is expected to cause confusion, especially in western states where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use, Minnesota officials said states allowing marijuana for medical purposes have extra legal protection. A congressional amendment since 2014 has prevented the Justice Department from using tax dollars to interfere with state medical marijuana programs. That amendment was almost eliminated in last year’s budget negotiations, however. U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., is part of a group of lawmakers hoping to provide more reliable protection for state programs.
“As I’ve said before, especially in regard to medical marijuana, the federal government has no business sending in the FBI and Department of Justice to prosecute people in full compliance with their own state’s law,” Lewis said.
While not entirely a partisan issue — some of the strongest reactions to Sessions came from a Republican in Colorado where marijuana is legal for recreational use.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat and retired Army National Guard officer, called the decision a step “backwards” when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has agreed to consider prescribing medical marijuana. He said Session’s decision “risks further facilitating the extremely dangerous and misguided practice of overprescribing opioids.”
Minnesota’s medical marijuana program, started in 2014, permits the use of cannabis oil and pills, but no smoked products, for a limited number of conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism.
More than 1,000 health care practitioners in the state are certified to approve patients for medical cannabis, which is provided through two state-authorized manufacturers. More than 8,000 Minnesotans receive medical cannabis.
Justice department sources have indicated that they anticipate no major changes to federal marijuana prosecutions in Minnesota. Federal marijuana prosecutions of any kind have been rare in the state in the past decade. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, just nine people were sentenced to federal prison in Minnesota in 2016 for marijuana offenses.
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744